Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dinner and Hair-cut, Courtesy of Friends

Halloween, also known as All Saints Day, falls on today. Last night, our friends, Ling and Bill, feted us to a delicious dinner comprising pizzas, sweet potato paste with marshmallow, bubor-chacha (a popular dessert back in Malaysia with beans and coconut milk, served cold), salad, and beef stew at their home. Wify and I partook of the vegetarian dishes only, as part of the 49-day mourning period for the recent passing of my late Father-in-law. For drinks, we had apple cider.

In the midst of our gastronomic pursuit, Bill brought out a cute looking bottle of Korean wine (Black raspberry, 15%) to the cheers of wify. The trio (with Ling) proceeded to share the bottle, toasting to each other's well being and good fortune. Keeping to my long-practiced tradition of abstinence from alcoholic intake, I watched with amusement, wondering what I have been missing.

Our gracious host, Bill, serving the apple cider, with the vegetarian and pepperoni pizzas, beef stew and salad ready to be savored.

Our family with the lady of the house, Ling, after the dinner, with the peony blossoms as backdrop.

On the way home, we stopped by CVS to buy candies in preparation for the trick or treat round that kids here are so enamored of. It used to be that kids would just look for houses with a pumpkin display at the door step for cue that the owners are fair game. Then I was told that these days they would just knock on every door that has light inside. So even though we do not have any pumpkin, we would be the last to disappoint any kid that comes a-calling.

Last weekend, Sophia, our Buddhist friend, dropped by to give wify a hair cut. This is the second time she has done that, but the first time was at her house. She has done a great job as revealed from the before and after shots. As for me, my barber for as long as I can remember has been and will be wify. I don't think I will ever be so at ease if it were somebody else ...

I think it's easy to tell which is before and which is after. The poncho-like outfit is Sophia's, kind of tell you that she's an old hand at this.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Scanning, Release, Smart and Pumpkins, All in a Day's Work

We woke up even earlier today, for an early morning Release Life activity that Yu Huei has arranged, the very first following her participation at the First Annual Asia Pacific Rim Festival held two saturdays ago. The meeting time and place were 8am and the parking lots of Best Buy along Dale Mabry Highway, respectively.

The morning air was crisp, and the sun was hovering just below the roofline of Best Buy when we reached the rendezvous venue just before 8am. Several employees of Best Buy were seen driving into the parking lots, ready to report for duty. Birds were circling the air space above, two of them making a pit stop on top of the crests of the ubiquitous M, of MacDonald's that is.

The sun peeking over the roof of Best Buy, while several doors of our car were opened as a universal symbol of waiting and invitation to climb aboard, to participants of the Release Life activity that is. (More on the pinkish hue later)

We stand on the giant shoulders of Ronald so that we could ...

While waiting for another 15 minutes for any late comer to join us on this cool morning for this meritorious expedition, I did an environmental scanning, my faithful Canon Powershot A75 in hand, ready to capture any Kodak moment that would present itself, including those described above.

I have always wanted to capture the high wire act of a squirrel as it darts across a hanging power line. And my wish was answered today, a lesson for the acrophobia-stricken amongst us. In layman's parlance, that's the fear of heights, rational or pathological.

Yes, stick it to the air, Alvin dude ...

At the conclusion of the 15-minute extension, we drove to Ballast Point that overlooks Hillsborough Bay, the same number of people as we had started in the car. A strong breeze greeted us there. And the scenery was a nice change, from the terrestrial, or more like urban landscape, to a watery one. Anglers were spaced along the wooden jetty. On the land side, children, under the watchful eyes of the parents, were enjoying themselves at the playground. Further afield across the road, equestrians-to-be with jockey caps were astride horses, strutting around the track.

The hazy outline of the Tampa downtown across from us. The pinkish sky is an artifact of my camera lense malfunctioning, momentarily. But it does add to the panorama, don't you think?

A straight shot to the end of the wooden jetty taken before the pink intrusion was fixed, by a simple off-on operation.

Yu Huei went into a bait shop to purchase two bucketfuls of juveniles fish and shrimps. And the trio proceeded to the end of a short jetty next to the boat launch, me carrying two pails. Palms joined, Yu Huei and Wify started the usual Buddhist chant while I retreated landward to several vantage points to record the proceeding, pictorially. The small animals released soon blended into the Bay water, spending their remaining days free from captivity in accordance with nature.

The small animals saved today ...

Releasing life over water.

By way of Bayshore Boulevard, we stopped by the Old Hyde Park, reliving the old memories while we were South Tampa residents until April this year. It was not surprising that pumpkins were the main attraction at the fountain area since Halloween was just around the corner (on October 31). But the Smart fortwo, with the tagline "Open Your Mind", was. See for yourself.

The nimble 3-cylinder road "buggy" that starts at just under $12,000/= ...

Fountain, pumpkins, and the early birds.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Reflections on a Typical Saturday

I have been postponing our car's scheduled maintenance service for several weeks. It's supposed to be done at every 3,000 miles or 3 months, whichever is earlier, I think. I have two possible time slots: one is early morning on Friday before work, since on the other weekdays I have my assigned duty of ferrying CE to school, oops, USF. The other one is on weekends, anytime of the day when the service center is open.

Well, for the past several Fridays I wasn't able to resist the allure of the bed, finding it hard to get up until the very last moments when further lingering would seriously jeopardize my perfect record of punctuality at work, unexcused ones of course. On weekends, the mind is so relaxed by the prospect of not making the downtown commute that it just disregards the biological wake-up calls, unless there are some other compelling reasons to snap out of the slumber.

Today was that day, and wify's monthly Buddhist chanting session at Connie's house was the compelling reason. And the fact that it was brought forward one hour, from 10am to 9am, suited me just fine, as I could then deliver the car to the service center earlier before the weekend crowd of car owners would swamp the service center.

It was drizzling the whole way to the service center, about half an hour's drive away. So I drove gingerly, no sudden burst of speed, either accelerating or decelerating, not that I'm prone to that anyway, at least since I moved to the States.

I drove into the Express lane, instructed things that I would like to be looked at to the attendant, and entered the waiting room. That was about 9.15am, and there were still some empty seats to choose from out of about a dozen, lining two opposite walls. The other two sides are taken up by the service section where they give you an estimate of the cost and time for your effort, and the cashier tucked at a corner right across.

I had come prepared, loading four books into my backpack in anticipation of some quality reading time. One of them is The Sleeping Doll by Jeffery Deaver of the Lincoln Rhyme/Amelia Sachs fame.

Actually when I placed this book on hold at a local public library, I had thought it to be another LRhyme/ASachs saga. But it was not to be when my turn on the waiting list was reached.

It is vintage JDeaver alright, but the protagonists are now Kathryn Dance and Michael O'Neill, but no overt romantic link between them. I did sense perhaps a platonic connection between them by reading between the lines, or putting two and two together. While LRhyme is steeped in forensics, trusting the physical evidence more than the human ones, KDance is the kinesics expert, relying on human emotions and body language to deduce the criminal intent and nail the perps.

Examples from the book include “I think ...” as a denial flag expression; turning one's head away and rubbing one's nose as an aversion/negation cluster; and shifting one's weight and pressing one's fingers together as stress indicators. In this regard, perhaps none is more vivid than the exchange between the characters played by Samuel L. Jackson and Paul Giametti in The Negotiator, a detective thriller (If you have not watched it, do so; it's one of the few movies or perhaps the only one, that managed to have my undivided attention from the very first minute).

Even the bad guy (yes, we know who he is right from the start, what is missing and to be pieced together is the why and how) capitalizes on human foibles to get his way, which still remains opaque about half way through the book. The plot captivated my attention totally, to the exclusion of three other books that I had brought along to mix things up, so to speak, in case any one book could not sustain me through the long wait. That forward planning turned out to be superfluous, thanks to the creative prowess of JDeaver. Incidentally, these three other book are all non-fiction. So the outcome could have been different had I chosen to start with one of these three.

Of course it's difficult to keep above the din typical of a waiting room of any sort all the time. So one moment a lady was chatting with her friend using a mobile on how her car was totalled and she has just got a Lincoln Malibu. At another instant a mother was reading a story to her daughters, perhaps trying to keep the bubbling girls from distracting those in waiting, some of whom, like me, had taken to reading to pass the time. Then a voice would come over the PA system announcing that a car of so-and so was ready for collection.

During these times my concentration was tested no doubt but I was able to persist in my reading, save for the time when the service guy came up to me, holding a dust-covered air filter in one hand, and a scribbled note in another. I could feel that my wallet had suddenly become lighter. This was just an imaginary sensation of course since payment is by credit card.

You know which part of sending your car for service you dread most? That exact moment, when the service guy told you that more needed to be done to make your car road-worthy. So I started with a $50 estimate. Before I had even warmed my seat, the estimate had swollen to over $300, including a brand new set of front brakes for $189.

But there was some good news embedded in that exchange, that I have managed to wear down two of the tires such that my "tire for life" deal that I have paid for when I purchased the car more than 3 years ago could now be invoked. Lest you think I have been using the original set of tires up till today, I have to tell you that I already have 4 tire changes prior, but all due to blow-up for one reason or another: like hitting the road curb while adjusting the rear mirror; or running over a pile of concrete debris that had landed on the road, or rather into my direct path, when I was moving into it from behind a truck on an adjacent lane and thus could not see the obstruction nor institute any evasive action in time (the truck was still moving next to me, hello?); or like a nail, a long one, suddenly seen sticking out just right at the edge of the tire, thus ruling out any prospect of patching the damage.

After that disruption, I settled down again, following the thickening plot as it unfolded among the pages of the Sleeping Doll. Then a familiar name came up on pg. 165. Yes, you guessed right, ASachs. And then LRhyme, with whom KDance exchanged some investigating stories.

This kind of cross character scenes I have seen in TV series such as Law and Order, which has three different series with different character sets running at the same time (there is the just Law and Order, then there is the Special Victims Unit, and the Criminal Intent). But in novels, it is the first time. Though these cameo appearances only lasted three pages, thus far, it was enough to make my day. Such is my liking for the LRhyme/AS achs series.

After the two hour's stay at the service center, I joined my wife at Connie's house for a vegetarian lunch. I continued to partake of the wit matching duel between KDance/MO' Neill and the perps at the Brandon Public Library while wify continued with reciting the Earth Store Sutra for transferring merits to my late father-in-law at the same place. Both our “assignments” ended around 3pm and we headed home soon after that, each having accomplished the tasks that we had set out to do for the day, and then some.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Plum Blossoms

My head nodding to the beat of the Rock and Roll styled Great Compassion Mantra, I started to write this blog that features plum blossoms, or the Mei in Chinese, the object of wify's arts lesson today.

The Mei has long been a popular subject in Chinese arts and painting. It thrives best in winter when all other flowers wilt in the face of the cold onslaught. Therefore, it is often used as a symbol of resilience, with strong survival instinct, defiant amidst the snowy landscape. Perhaps this ability to flourish in adversity is what has earned the Mei its status as the national flower of China.

The beauty of most flowers is boosted by leaves that seem to ring them like sentinels on guard. But not plum blossoms. Only bald branches that support them. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ladies in Style, Old Style That is

Wify wanted to warm up for tomorrow's weekly arts lessons, after a week's break because the teacher, Mrs. Fan, had to attend to some personal matters. So she practiced on her own, drawing elegant Chinese ladies in traditional garb in various poses.

Earlier, she wanted to buy a special very fine tip Chinese brush that the teacher has, named the Red Bean Brush. The name is stamped on to the brush stalk in Chinese characters.

So we made an Internet search for Chinese bookstores but found none in Tampa. Then we chanced upon one in Orlando, but the number listed that we called ended up in some unrelated office. Not once, but twice.

Two weeks ago we visited a local Michael's Arts and Crafts, browsing through the offerings. And we came upon some brushes with fine tips. Though she was not sure whether those would meet her purpose as obviously those are made for western style painting, we bought them anyway. So it was kind of a D-day today.

The verdict: the brushes are up to the job, based on her assessment, as revealed in the products of her effort below:

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Great Compassion Mantra: a Different Beat

While exploring the Chinese buddoblogosphere, I chanced upon a rock-and-roll version of a Chinese Buddhist song that we have grown familiar to. It's the Great Compassion Mantra, usually recited in Sanskrit learned by reading phonetically the equivalent Chinese words. Since Chinese words are mono-syllabic, this seems like an expeditious way of reciting Buddhist mantras in Sanskrit.

According to Wikipedia, the Great Compassion Mantrais a popular mantra syonymous with Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara [aka Guan Yin among Chinese Buddhists] in East Asia. It is often used for protection or purification".

That some musically inclined Buddhist practitioners would eventually tag a melody/tune to the Great Compassion Mantra is perhaps not surprising at all. And this Buddhist song, sung to a slow beat befitting the solemn content of the mantra, permeates our home everyday.

Then along came this rock and roll version, the rhythmic drum beat lending a diametrically different rendition. Its fast pace runs counter to calmness, equanimity, serenity, all the tranquil states of mind that we actively seek.
Listening to the song, it's hard not to be led into tapping the fingers along, or shaking the feet in unison. To a serious Buddhist practitioner schooled in the traditional way of strict observance of protocol and decorum, the song would likely invite reproach, or engender the shaking of the head in disapproval at best.

Personally, I enjoy this R&R styled Great Compassion Mantra of a Chinese Buddhist song. There's nothing intrinsically wrong in adding some levity to our life. But I'm certainly mindful of the where and the when this version of the Chinese Buddhist song (actually sung in Sanskrit) is to be aired. One example is when I'm alone in the car, driving to work, the beat seemingly encapsulating my existence right at that moment. Just like what I did today, and shall be doing it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next ...

If your interest is sufficiently piqued, try it out here (DBZFY01). Thanks to the producers of the song, whoever you are.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The First Annual Asia Pacific Rim Festival and Some Revelations

Yesterday we attended the very first outdoor festival, at the park scale, since we arrived at Tampa, if my memory serves me right, the operative words being park and outdoor. It was the inaugural Asia Pacific Rim Festival in Pinellas Park organized by the St. Petersburg International Folkfair Society. Promised to deliver food, culture, entertainment, arts and crafts, the event did not disappoint, in more ways than one as we shall see.

The event poster on the left; and the entrance portal and a glimpse of the tent stalls and the sea of visitors at noon to the right.

When we arrived around noon, the early birds were already hopping from tent to tent spread out around the England Brothers Bandshell Park, savoring the food and admiring the exquisite offering of apparel and handicrafts from each ethnic group featured in the poster.

Apart from enjoying the pageantry and the ambience of the occasion, we were also there to lend support to Yu Huei, who had set up a table among the Taiwanese cluster to feature Buddhism, next to the Tzuchi Foundation, the Buddhist Compassion Relief headquartered in Taiwan. The latter's presence was also at the behest of Yu Huei, coming as they were from Orlando to help propagate the virtuous act of giving and helping the unfortunates and the needy through the Bodhisattva's way.

Yu Huei's table was filled with introductory texts and brochures on Buddhism, in both Chinese and English. There were also pocket-sized cards containing words of wisdom, distilled from the thousands of years of Buddhist practice.

Yu Huei's and Tzuchi's tables from different angles: (from top left going clockwise) Yu Huei in animated discussion with a visitor; Wify momentarily manning the stall, the two hand-drawn posters by her adorning the table; the moral supporters taking a respite from the afternoon sun, observing life unfolding ...; the signature flag of the Tzuchi Foundation, in green and fluttering in the breeze.

Yu Huei had also prepared a couple of leaflets, one on a brief summary of salient points as regards Buddhism in the form of questions and answers couched in layman's terms. There are meant to pique the interest of the uninitiated who could then find out more about Buddhism from the many area-wide Buddhism-themed organizations contained in another leaflet.

From the moment we located Yu Huei's table, I noted a constant stream of visitors approaching her table: young, old, white, black, brown, yellow, a spectrum of age and skin color, but all drawn to her table all the same. She greeted each visitor with the same enthusiasm, like meeting a long-lost friend, her belief in Buddhism and eagerness to share Buddhist wisdom among the first-timers and neophytes manifesting in her self-assured and engaging demeanor. And her staying power is amazing. We left about 3pm, most of the time observing the ongoing in the shade of the lone big tree that stands guard over the Taiwanese Cluster, the choice of the strategic location being impeccable to say the least, while Yu Huei, though appearing slightly sweaty then, still stood her ground, her radiance patently unmistakable. It turned out that we, or at least I, only needed to offer moral support by our mere presence.

Wify did much more: preparing vegetarian fried rice together with Julie and Connie for the volunteers at Yu Huei's and Tzuchi's tables, and did the two posters for Yu Huei. And the combination of Yu Huei's delightfully exuberant personality and wify's artistic talent seemed to captivate the continuous throng of visitors to the table, not discounting the humanistic appeal of the wisdom enshrined in engaged Buddhism.

I learned at night that Yu Huei stayed on until the closing hours of 10.00pm, earning phrases from wify for a job well done, one that she enjoyed tremendously, and hence, excelled in comfortably.

I'm glad that Yu Huei has found her calling of sort, not merely mouthing it, but putting it into action, and the joy written all over her face while she was at it bears testimony to what Pearl S. Buck has said, which I have chanced upon while reading Les Parrot's 3 Seconds (pg. 59 - 60):

"The secret of joy in work is contained in one word -- excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it."

And that's the revelation of the day for me. But to complete the sights and sounds (may be not) of the day's festivity, here's a pictorial account of some selected highlights from my personal perspective. Enjoy!

(Left) The ever popular Dragon dance, showcasing the serpentine creature, a venerable symbol of Chinese mythology, careening in a chase of the pearl that always seems to stay several twists of the Dragon's spiralling motion ahead; (Right) Thai Buddhist monks solemnizing the start of the event at the entrance portal.

Four of the stalls by different ethnic groups: (from top left going clockwise) Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, and the South Pacific Island group.

The central attraction, the dance performances: (top left going clockwise) A fan dance (I forgot the origin); Indian dance; Thai fashion (I chose this from the several shots that I have taken because the Emcee said the dresses incorporated the influence of Malaysia to the south: the ubiquitous sarong; a chinese dance performance to a tune sung in the local Taiwanese dialect (Hokkien/Mingnam), which precipitated some nostalgic flashbacks among us, including wify who knows the tune but from a Chinese song.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Transferring Merits to the Dear Departed and Helping Others

Wify's circle of Buddhist friends gathered tonight at our home to attend a simple, solemn Buddhist ceremony in memoriam of my late Father-in-law who passed away earlier in the week. She was the only one among her siblings who could not attend the funeral in person.

The one-hour ceremony comprised chanting of the Amitabha Sutra with periodic prostration as a symbolic act of transferring merits to my late Father-in-law. I stood at the back of the group, memories of my interaction with the dear departed flashing through my mind.

Our eldest and youngest children amidst the chantees ...

I recall meeting him at a bus stop not far from our home in PJ on some of the evenings when he returned from a trip to downtown. There were occasions too when I dropped him off at the same place for him to go city-ward.

Those were the days when I was preoccupied with my own work and pursuit of personal hobbies such as reading. At times, instead of taking it as my duty to be of service to my elders, I felt like doing a chore, debating how the time could have been better spent.

It took me awhile, a long while actually, to realize that to be in a position to help others, let alone the elders of loved ones, is such a blessing that it escapes a lot of us. Oftentimes the effort can be likened to lifting a finger, metaphorically, but we choose not to do it voluntarily, until badgered into it whence the momentary displeasure that the vacillation causes sometimes escalates into animosity, turning a potentially amiable moment into disarray.

So next time when the opportunity to help others, no matter how effortless it may seem, offers itself, jump right in and emerge ready to help another.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A Family-centric Release Life Outing

Seizing upon the concurrent presence of our three children here in Tampa this weekend (the fourth is in Florida too but away at Gainesville), we decided to organize a family-oriented Release Life activity at the behest of Yu Huei. The venue: Veteran Memorial Park by the Tampa Bypass.

We knew from our last visit there that the Park opens at 10.00am. So we timed our visit accordingly. We first bought five kinds of small animals (minnows, juvenile shrimps, medium-sized fish, crickets, and earthworms) from a nearby fish and tackle shop. Before that wify and Yu Huei led the sutra chanting in the shop as a blessing to all sentient lives therein. Yu Huei also offered an apology to those remaining behind due to the limited capacity of our release effort.

Arriving at the Park, wify first lowered the fish and shrimps contained in three plastic pails into the stream. They soon swam away, perhaps acclimatizing to the realm of nature free from captivity. Next the earthworms were delivered into shallow hand-dug pits around the root region of several trees on the river bank. The rain in the past few days has softened the soil enough for easy digging. Once released, the earthworms were seen slithering bubbly about, seemingly overjoyed at the embrace of Mother Earth.

Wify seemed to be emerging from the stream, a spade in hand, while remaining dry ...
Wify releasing the earthworms while Yu Huei was delivering the blessed water, with the two sisters watching from a safe distance, mindful of the wriggly critters.

The last, but not the least, to taste freedom were the crickets when the paper bags containing and confining them were unstapled. Thus concluded a simple and meaningful family-based Release Life activity, on a sunny morning.

We then adjourned to lunch at a Thai Buddhist Temple at Palms River Drive, located at a tree-lined picturesque site next to the Tampa Bypass. It was breezy, the wind and the tree shade at the open-air picnic tables combining to engender a comfortable outdoor eating experience. But CY, long used to the low humidity that characterizes the Pacific NorthWest (Oregon to be more specific), could not wait to get home or a shopping mall to savor the cool comfort of air-conditioning. In her words, it was suffocating. Guess she still has a long way to go in taming the mind so as not be influenced by the external environment.

The wind-perturbed waves gently lapping against the low river bank next to our table ...
The sibling ready to partake of the lunch offering, momentarily disregarding the high humidity as evident from the flashy smiles ...

Mom and son standing erect next to the portrait of the Buddha ...

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Something to Consider and Something Uplifting

This past week has been an eventful one, but we will deal with the matters arising one at a time, rationally, and with thoughtful kindness for all concerned. While one should exercise control over one's life, or destiny, one should also recognize that one does not live in a vacuum, and hence, there are consequences to what one does. As a result, it becomes one's responsibility, or shall we say, one's stamp of maturity, to ensure that the ramifications are contained the best way one could. In this regard, family support becomes especially vital, as a safe refuge, as a feedback on sanity/reality check, and as a seaworthy vessel as one navigates the sometimes turbulent sea of life.

If I sounded like talking in riddles, perhaps I have intended that way. Suffice to say that it is an observation that could apply anywhere, to anybody, regardless of personal circumstances. Perhaps also the best statement, in terms of pithiness, can be summed up in the following words taken from the screen adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel, The Painted Veil, starring Edward Norton and Noami Watts which we watched last weekend:

When love and duty are one, then grace is within you.”

Now on to something uplifting: wify's progress in painting and chinese calligraphy, as exemplified by her latest efforts.

She did this on her own as her teacher has not moved on to this phase of the Arts lesson yet, looking at a picture from a Chinese Buddhism book on Guan Yin (Bodhisattva AvalokiteĊ›vara).
She painted this Chrysanthemum flower yesterday, based on the handiwork of, now get this, the teacher's teacher. She reluctantly let me put this up as she was not satisfied. I told her to treat it as a work in progress.

And these are the two Chinese words for the Heart Sutra.